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A Q&A with Sue Savage-Rumbaugh


In 2011, Time magazine recognized Sue Savage-Rumbaugh as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World for her research into language among bonobo apes, which has profoundly altered our understanding of language, learning, social behavior, and cognition in primates. I write about Savage-Rumbaugh in an essay on the history of ape language research in the current issue of Harper’s Magazine. When her work with bonobos began, Sue and her colleagues were trying to get Matata, an adult female, to understand a system of lexigrams—arbitrary, nonrepresentative pictures indicating everyday meanings. Matata did not learn them, but her adopted infant Kanzi, who was present for the experiments, began picking them up spontaneously, with no deliberate instruction.

The experiment has since grown to include a family of bonobos, including Kanzi’s sister, Panbanisha, and recently, Teco, a two-year-old male, who are conversant in the evolving system of lexigrams, and are receptive to an astonishing level of spoken English. After decades of being based at Georgia State University’s Language Research Center, Savage-Rumbaugh’s experiment in developing a culture shared between apes and humans moved in 2004 to the Great Ape Trust, a privately-funded research facility near Des Moines that was recently reorganized and renamed the Bonobo Hope Learning Sanctuary.

I recently spoke with Savage-Rumbaugh across several days. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:

BH: Before beginning your research into lexigrams at Georgia State, you studied at Bill Lemon’s chimp-research facility at the University of Oklahoma, which now has a very mixed reputation, having been described at times as brutal and inhumane. In his memoir, Next of Kin, chimp researcher Roger Fouts makes the facility sound like a very strange place.

SSR: It was a rare and unusual place. I had been admitted to Harvard, and on my way there to study with B. F. Skinner, I went to a lecture by Roger. He brought a chimpanzee, Booee, to class, and demonstrated his ability to make a sign when an object was held up. He said that volunteers could come to the ape farm to help him teach four young apes signs. I volunteered, and knew within days that I was not going to Harvard—I was staying at OU, where I could learn about culture and human behavior in a way that was not possible anywhere else on earth. There were things that were unusual at the “chimp farm”—for one, Lemon got prisoners to do most of the ape care, getting them out on good behavior as their psychiatrist, and promising to rehabilitate them. He felt that the exposure to apes was helpful to them.

At the chimp farm there were chimpanzees (reared in human environments, peer environments, and normal ape environments), gibbons, several species of macaques, macaws, peacocks, dogs, humans, baboons, siamangs, and pigs—all subjects of rearing studies. It was an amazing place. The differences I saw in chimpanzees reared in different environments made me realize that Skinner underestimated the role of language and culture in shaping behavior in some powerful ways that were completely independent of “rewards,” in his sense of the word.

BH: How did your research evolve from earlier psychological and language experiments with great apes?

SSR: The cultural transmission that has happened here goes far beyond anything that has happened in other ape projects. This is because of the “for real” inclusion of apes into the human world and the human familial system. Language is a way of being and living, and their lives here are based on human values, morals, and family. We do not have “subjects,” we have “relatives.” They eat, sleep, and live with us. Even the Gardners, who prided themselves on their method of “sign immersion,” put Washoe in a cage at night. Teco sleeps with me. I am there as much for him as any mother is there for her child, and in many cases more. This is the critical variable; this method fosters the identification required with others for rapid self-learning of language. The lexigrams make it easy, since the bonobo’s voice box is so different from ours.

BH: You’ve spoken of “epigenetics as a mechanism of change—not evolution—but change.” What did you mean by this?

SSR: The classical view of evolution is that gene selection is a function of effective reproductive advantage, which produces change over time. “Epigenetics” are the “epi” phenomena that exist around the genes—the genes’ environment, if you will. The environment—including the culture—determines the gene-activation profile. You may have genes that in some environments do not turn on, or that turn on for a shorter or longer period, or turn off and on in different relative ratios. The “environment” is determined, in large measure, by the culture, which for humans includes buildings of certain styles, patterns of traffic flow, expectations regarding strangers, foods, and so on. These environmental effluvia determine the gene-activation pattern. Thus, as you change the culture, you change the gene-activation pattern and the ways in which the genes manifest their presence in the behavior, physiology, and structure of the organism. That which is “selected,” then, is the whole organism, and the organism is driven by its culture to become what it is.

For example, human babies do not cling with their feet—it has generally been assumed that this is because the feet are not designed to cling. Teco’s feet were designed to cling, but he does not cling with them; it appears that the neuronal code in this case causes many changes before the anatomical changes emerge that go along with human feet. Teco evidences strong handedness, more conscious ability to control his wrists, fingers, toes, tongue, and breathing—he is moving much more rapidly down the path toward human enculturation than Kanzi did. Kanzi was born into a world in which he did not need to cling with his feet in order to survive—but he did cling with his feet. Teco illustrates how rapidly (within two or three generations, neural changes are occurring in the genetic activation pattern) structural changes can happen, and the effect they have on the body as well as group behavior. A mother caring for an infant whose feet do not cling must alter her behavior dramatically if the infant is to survive.

BH: You told me that you’re working toward co-creating (with the bonobos) a hybrid “Pan/Homo” culture. How do you go about doing this?

SSR: People often ask, “Why don’t you try to learn the apes’ language instead of asking them to learn yours?” The answer is that I do try—I try extremely hard. But it is more difficult for humans to learn their language—I realize this statement assumes they have one—than it is for them to learn ours. I have learned a lot about Matata’sMatata is Kanzi’s adoptive mother; she did not learn the lexigrams. cultural constructions. She sees the world in a very different manner than we human beings; Kanzi and Panbanisha are able to manage both cultures’ perspectives, though they tend to prefer the human perspective. In deciding to rear Kanzi and Panbanisha both with attachments to Matata and to myself, it was inevitable that they would become bicultural. Just as with a “pidgin” language—a new language made up of two or more distinct languages—one arrives at a pidgin culture made up of two or more cultures. Generally we think of this in terms of human culture. In this case we have gone across the species boundary to create a cross-species pidgin culture.

If one wants to determine how we became human, one has to look at the cultural transitions from quadrupedal to bipedal, from clinging to not clinging, from foraging to carrying food and storing, from inhabiting only warm climates to inhabiting all climates, from fear of fire to control of fire, and so on. These are things we do not because we are human, but because our culture defines them as productive ways of living.

BH: A few years ago, there was some controversy around your leadership of the Great Ape Trust. You told me you were for a time “excised” from the trust for making claims about the intelligence of Panbanisha that others found difficult to believe. What were these claims?

SSR: I was invited by the board and CEO at the timeBonobo Hope has a new board and CEO to leave the trust grounds and become a “scientist emeritus” after publishing an article in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science on the capacity of the bonobos for the process of self-determination. One of the more controversial claims was that the bonobos were producing representational art. This claim was the subject of a master’s thesis by [my student] Itai Roffman that not only substantiated the claim but greatly expanded upon it. The thesis will be published once we find the proper outlet for it.

BH: You also said that Panbanisha and your sister, Liz, thought it best to “hide her talents,” since displaying them had led to “disastrous consequences.” What were these consequences?

SSR: After we had cared for all the bonobos on a daily basis from 1975 till 2004, their care was turned over to individuals who were unable to go in with them or to clearly understand their nonverbal communications and their vocal utterances—which go way beyond their keyboard utterances. As a result, the differences between the experimental and control groups were erased, with the lives of both becoming like those of typical zoo-housed bonobos. In such cases, self-determination is not an option offered to the [apes].

In most zoos, there are always a few caretakers who insist on secretly showing the animals “who is clearly in charge”—just as is the case in human prisons. Panbanisha has become afraid of such people; she did not know this side of humanity before.

BH: What are your plans for Bonobo Hope?

SSR: Our goal is to create a sanctuary for artists—bonobo and human artists—to create interspecies art, music, and object/habitat construction through interspecies communication. Travel is an important part of the life of all primates. Bonobos typically travel through the forest by means of walking—but here they also travel by boat, by car and by Fourtrax. At Bonobo Hope Sanctuary, bonobos and humans will travel side by side, on paths where they will encounter interactive sculpture and interactive art, and hopefully each will become more creative as they observe the activities of the other. Zoos have traditionally been one-sided. That is, they have always been places where animals are looked at by humans, but humans are not looked at in return by the animals. In the case of the Bonobo Hope sanctuary, humans will be traveling and doing things that are of interest to the bonobos. Each species will learn from observing the activities of the other as they travel from place to place.

BH: The Great Ape Trust was only very rarely open to the public. Is your idea to open up the grounds to the general public?

SSR: Ideally, the public flow will be outdoors, with travel to different “creative spaces,” including buildings for certain activities. The center will not be open every day to such activities, but probably more like one or two days a week. At first, we will lack the funding for this kind of campus-wide development, so we will focus only the bonobo building and the former orang building, which is now the visitor center. Our current operating budget is $350,000. It will require $650,000 to safely open the center to the public and approximately $2 million to modify a portion of the campus to permit creative bi-species travel.

BH: If you succeed in raising the funds to make these changes, what do you think the effect of this shift would mean for the bonobos and the public?

SSR: The public will see the bonobos in a one-on-one setting, much as we see them. They will realize their intelligence and there will come a feeling that intelligence is flowing both ways across the physical boundaries separating the species. We will also be including border collies in the bonobos’ space, and these dogs will be able to cross the boundary of separation and go into the humans’ space. When humans see that bonobos interact with the dogs just as they do, it will change their perception of the bonobos.


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August 2012

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